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Agency Notes Not All COVID Gear Was Sold for Pennies — $28M Worth Being Tossed Out

Responding days after THE CITY’s original story, and weeks after questions were first asked, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services says many of the items bought in the heat of the pandemic had expired.

SHARE Agency Notes Not All COVID Gear Was Sold for Pennies — $28M Worth Being Tossed Out

People sign up for coronavirus testing in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Oct. 27, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city agency that sold off millions of COVID-response items for bargain-basement prices has slated for destruction $27.7 million worth of pandemic-purchased hand sanitizer and test supplies that have expired, THE CITY has learned.

(An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that $99 million worth of pandemic purchases were on a list to be destroyed).

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) has also put up for auction another $35 million purchased in isolation gowns and face shields at a potentially tremendous discount. Their starting bid price for the whole COVID-response cache: $24,500, records obtained by THE CITY show.

THE CITY reported Tuesday that DCAS officials have auctioned off 9.5 million COVID-response items for $500,000 since last summer. The items were purchased at the start of the pandemic, in March and April 2020, as part of $224 million in contracts meant to get equipment — including personal protective items — to front-line workers as the coronavirus wreaked havoc in city emergency rooms.

That included $12 million for 3,000 so-called “bridge vents” purchased that April, which were supposed to serve as backups to the ventilators much in demand at that time. 

But it appears none of the devices were ever used and nearly all sat in a warehouse in Queens in their original packaging until last month when DCAS listed them as “non-functional medical equipment sold for scrap metal.”

A junk dealer got the whole lot for $24,600.

Late Response

Until Thursday, DCAS officials had refused to answer THE CITY’s questions about the original cost of all these auctioned items, but department spokesperson Nick Benson has issued a response.

He revealed that even more items were sold off than those THE CITY had identified through available records — 12.2 million, not 9.5 million. And for the first time he provided the original cost to taxpayers for these auctioned items: $42.4 million. All of those were sold for $542,000, or an average of about 4 cents per item.

In response to THE CITY’s questions, DCAS on Thursday also acknowledged that another huge cache of COVID-response items — including millions of bottles of hand sanitizer that had expired, thousands of various medical test kits, and tens of thousands of medical swabs — have been placed on a “salvage” list to be destroyed.

According to records THE CITY obtained via the Freedom of Information Law, taxpayers originally paid $58.8 million for those items, of which $31 million has to date either been used or donated. But about half — $27.7 million — has either already been destroyed as expired goods or is set to be destroyed in the coming months, Benson said.

One of the problems DCAS has faced is that no one seems to want any of this material.

Benson said the items — including KN95 masks, isolation gowns, aprons and face shields — are all considered “non-medical” and were purchased at the start of the pandemic when medical supplies and safety equipment were difficult to obtain. 

Now that higher-grade supplies are available, Benson stated, city health officials said they don’t need the non-medical items anymore.

But when DCAS put them up for auction, the items often attracted zero bidders even though DCAS has tried selling them at sharply discounted prices, records show. In fact, the paltry demand inspired the agency to reduce the starting prices even further in the last few weeks.

Priced to Move

Details about specific auctioned items — first requested by THE CITY on Feb. 9 but not received until Thursday — make clear just how steep those discounts have been.

Hand sanitizer purchases, in particular, went for a song. All Hands Fire Equipment was paid $5.78 million for the stuff in early 2020, but DCAS wound up auctioning off $4.8 million of that — or 1.6 million bottles — for $500.

A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a desk in front of a surgical masks.


A similar pattern emerged with Old Fourth Distillery, a Georgia-based booze maker that used its equipment to crank out bottles of sanitizer in 2020. In October, DCAS auctioned off more than 3 million of Old Fourth’s bottles, which cost the city $7.7 million, also for $500.

Another not-so-hot auction item: isolation gowns, millions of which the city purchased for nurses and clinicians as COVID-19 hospitalizations skyrocketed.

In September, DCAS put up for sale 2.3 million gowns that had been purchased for $6.1 million made by a Garment District company, JBS Dresses. The whole lot sold for $5,100. That same month another 3.3 million gowns — originally bought for $8.1 million and made by a Missouri firm, Success Promotions — went for $1,000 at auction.

And there’s plenty more still on the block.

On Thursday, the website publicsurplus.com — where the city goes to sell off items it no longer needs — listed 15 separate auctions for COVID-response items purchased by DCAS.

All told there were 7 million items — mostly isolation gowns and face shields — offered up for a total starting price of $24,560 on the site.

On Friday DCAS provided THE CITY with the original purchase price of these items: $35 million.

This past Tuesday, in response to THE CITY’s report, Mayor Eric Adams said he would order his team to look into the protocols for auctioning off these items.

“I think that that needs to be re-examined, and I’m going to communicate with the team and figure out what options do we have, because taxpayers’ dollars should be spent better,” Adams said at City Hall.

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the value of goods to be destroyed. Additionally, the headline has been updated to reflect the revised article.

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